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Dec. 1 – American Dad! – “The Best Christmas Story Never Told”

img_1104Oh hell yeah, it’s time for Christmas posts! Welcome back for the year 2020 as The Christmas Spot comes at you with 25 days of Christmas posts! 2020 has been a crazy year with a lot of new normals tossed our way, but at least each year the calendar gets turned over to Christmas and for close to one month things seem consistent with prior years. And like year’s past, we’re turning this place into an advent calendar and looking at 25 festive topics. Most of which will be like this one, a write-up of a beloved or not so beloved Christmas television special. It may be one from the past, or it may be relatively current, but one thing is certain and that’s it will be Christmas. I have nothing against the other seasonal holidays occurring around this time, it’s just that Christmas is my jam and I want to share my enthusiasm with all of you.

For this year, we’re turning things over to an animated sitcom that has become fairly reliable when it comes to Christmas. American Dad! premiered after the Super Bowl in 2005 and immediately found itself in the shadow of Family Guy. That’s because the show is co-created by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and at the time it premiered it was being billed as the Family Guy replacement. This was during the hiatus for Family Guy following its cancellation, though the show would eventually return. As such, it felt like many Family Guy fans were immediately dismissive of American Dad! because it wasn’t the show they wanted. They wanted more Family Guy, not an imitation. You would think things would improve following the revival of Family Guy, but instead fans of that show once again seemed to look down on American Dad! as now that their beloved show had returned, what need of this new one did anyone have?

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Like Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers, American Dad! has become a reliable source for Christmas specials over the years.

Which was unfortunate, because American Dad! had very little in common with Family Guy. I suppose it resembled Season One of Family Guy to a point as both shows were influenced by the classic sitcom All in the Family. While Family Guy only borrowed from that show a little, American Dad! was practically a reimagining of that program in animated form. The show was co-created by eventual show-runners Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman and once the pilot was basically sold to Fox, MacFarlane backed away as he was soon pulled back into Family Guy duty. The show was conceived as a liberal’s answer to the Bush era political climate of the time. The conservative leading man, Stan Smith (MacFarlane) would be positioned opposite his young adult daughter Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane), a college-educated liberal, and rely on the conflict inherent in that relationship for several plots. Stan was presented as boorish and unfailingly patriotic, and as a member of the CIA he took national security very seriously to the point of suspecting anyone with brown skin as being a terrorist. Hayley was often the voice of reason, though also saddled with the usual college stereotype of being lazy and more interested in getting high than actually working to promote change in the political landscape. She would be paired with a boyfriend turned husband, Jeff Fischer (Jeff Fischer), that Stan hates which is basically the same relationship Archie Bunker had with “Meathead” in All in the Family.

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In this episode, Stan is going to learn the true meaning of Christmas and we’re going to learn about Roger’s past, seen here laying face-down in a mix of snow and vomit.

Eventually, the show found a niche and relied less on the Stan/Hayley dynamic. The rest of the family would play a more prominent role in furthering stories. Francine (Wendy Schaal) is portrayed as a stay-at-home mom and is the caretaker of the house and kids. She began life in the show as being a stereotypical conservative ideal, but over the years has developed her own quirks and failings, making her feel like a more fleshed-out character. Son Steve (Scott Grimes) has been molded into being Stan’s opposite ideal for a son. He’s a geek who likes comics and Dungeons & Dragons, but also is emotionally Stan’s opposite as he’s sensitive and comfortable with expressing his “non manly” emotions. As is the case with all MacFarlane shows, there’s a talking animal and in this one it’s a goldfish named Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker) who is a former German athlete trapped in the body of a fish. He’s mostly just there to make observations and the family often ignores him. By far, the big breakout character of the show is definitely Roger the alien (MacFarlane), who saved Stan’s life years ago and as reward is being kept safe from the government in the Smith household. He begins the show as an Alf knock-off, but the writers eventually found another role for him and that’s as an alien of many personalities. He often leaves the home in disguise and will even live other lives as he devotes himself to the roles he plays. He’s also literally the show’s worst character as he’s a sociopathic narcissist and will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. In that aspect, he somewhat resembles Cartman of South Park fame.

For what Wikipedia considers the show’s third season (it’s complicated), a Christmas episode was commissioned. It would be the first of several, as the very conservative Stan and his family naturally lend themselves well to the holiday. The episodes have become some of the show’s finest as they’re pretty big in spectacle and only seem to grow more and more outlandish. There would be a continuity established as well as the Smith family becomes the enemy of Santa. Because the show’s broadcast schedule is a bit erratic, not every year brings with it a new Christmas episode, but it’s certainly something I look for each year.

Since I have never covered American Dad! before in one of these countdowns, it would seem the best place to start is with that first Christmas special. “The Best Christmas Story Never Told” premiered on December 17, 2006. Some places consider that Season 3 of the show, though it would appear it’s production Season Two. Writing of the episode is credited to Brian Boyle with staff writers Laura McCreary and Erik Durbin also receiving credits. Boyle is also executive producer on the series, but has received a written by credit on several other episodes, including the 2014 Christmas episode “Dreaming of a White Porsche Christmas” which interestingly is similar to this one as it presents an alternate reality for Stan at Christmas.

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The Smith family ready to bask in the glow of the town Christmas tree.

While I do think American Dad! is quite different from Family Guy, it does amuse me that this inaugural Christmas episode begins the same way as Family Guy’s first Christmas episode. The whole family is gathered in the town square for the annual lighting of the town Christmas tree. Stan is quite jubilant about the whole thing, while Roger is face-down in the snow and booze (and vomit) since Christmas makes him feel like a failure. It’s here Roger’s origin is retconned a bit, possibly for the first time, as he reveals he’s been on Earth for over 40 years. In other words, he had a lengthy existence before meeting the Smith family. Stan doesn’t care and implores him to acknowledge the holiday. When it’s announced the lighting has been cancelled at the last minute due to the town being unable to celebrate a secular holiday on town property, Stan gets angry as a crew moves in to demolish the place. Stan rages it’s the liberals and atheists telling them how to celebrate their holiday, and when a passerby tries to reason with Stan, Stan laments he can’t wait for The Rapture. As Stan tells them they’ll be left behind, Francine tries to smooth things over by telling the other family they’re free to use their pool after they’ve been raptured, provided it’s not boiling. Francine then suggests they go to church instead and Stan dismisses that suggestion on account of church being boring. He then declares he needs to go someplace where he can learn the true meaning of Christmas – the mall!

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Take note of the little person working the camera.

Stan contentedly looks on as his kids sit on Santa’s lap and ask him for toys. He remarks that this is what Christmas is all about and as he does so the show decides to use a regrettable slur for little people and even has Hayley, who should know better, use it casually as well. The kids then implore their father to get something for Roger for Christmas, but Stan doesn’t want to since Roger isn’t Christian. Roger has no say at the moment for he’s passed out in a baby stroller. Stan then takes sight of The 99 Cent Depot and decides he can spare a buck for Roger.

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I bet you expected Stan to react this way to “Happy Holidays.”

Stan heads to the register and asks for one of the store’s wares. The clerk hands him a cassette of disco’s greatest hits from 1974-1980 and Stan deems this satisfactory. When the clerk tells him it costs $1.07 due to taxes, Stan suggests they change the store’s name, but the clerk points out that’s not his decision. Stan smiles and is satisfied with that response, but when he wishes the clerk a “Merry Christmas,” (you know where this is going) and gets a “Happy Holidays” in return his mood changes. Angry, he demands that the clerk acknowledge his holiday, but the same excuse about the sign is not enough to sway Stan this time. He pulls out a gun to demand action and we cut to Stan being tossed outside by security. When he calls back to remind them he had a gun, a gift-wrapped gun is tossed to him.

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Did you take note of that little person two pictures ago?!

At the Smith household, Stan is still visibly outraged by the “liberals” who are destroying Christmas. The family tries to reason with him, but he’s more than a little stubborn. Stan then rhetorically asks the family who is to blame for all of this, and they respond with exhaustion in their voices because this is something Stan must remind them of often, Jane Fonda. Apparently Stan blames Ms. Fonda for spreading liberal ideas through her protests against the war in Vietnam and it’s not something he’s about to let go of. A ring of the doorbell gets Stan’s hopes up momentarily as he thinks carolers have arrived. He opens the door to the costumed group, but finds out they’re only here to spread awareness of the Holiday Rapist and hold up a flier. This is the tipping point for Stan as he demands they refer to him as the Christmas Rapist. He slams the door and sets to destroying the festive decorations in the house, including tossing most of them through the living room window. Steve begins to cry that Daddy destroyed the toys Chinese kids made for him while Francine scolds Stan for his behavior. She tells him he’s sleeping on the couch tonight which Stan tries to protest by pointing out the now missing window and the presence of the Christmas Rapist on the loose.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past has been assigned Stan Smith this year. Unlike other ghosts, she apparently works alone on Christmas.

Stan is shown sleeping on the couch (in his suit, for some reason) looking a bit cold when a woman materializes beside him. She’s quite fairy-like I suppose, and when she wakes Stan he snaps open his eyes and shouts “Holiday Rapist!” and dives behind the couch before quickly correcting himself with “Christmas Rapist.” The woman then explains, in a faux British accent, that she’s the Ghost of Christmas Past (Lisa Kudrow) and she’s here to help Stan lean the true meaning of Christmas. He soon brightens up and the ghost takes him all the way back to 1970.

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The idyllic Christmas of Stan’s youth.

There the two peek into the Smith home where a young Stan is opening his Christmas presents. Stan is amazed that they’re really back in 1970 and the woman reassures him by mentioning how things are different. One of those mentions is Jane Fonda, who is presently filming to movie Klute nearby causing Stan’s eyes to narrow in a menacing fashion. He then takes off running, much to the bewilderment of the ghost, who just calls for him to come back, dropping the accent. When he doesn’t obey, she just starts grumbling to herself about how this is her first turn as Past and she already screwed it up. Apparently, she used to be a Tooth Fairy. She then reveals to us her name is Michelle, and mentions she should have just stayed with some guy named Chad.

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Jane Fonda on the set of Klute. Fonda, and the other celebrities of this episode, were offered to voice themselves, but all turned the show down. I bet they would have said “Yes,” to The Simpsons.

Stan is able to track down the filming location for Klute and watches as Jane Fonda (uncredited, but sounds like Wendy Schaal) is filmed feeding a cat, and then herself. She explains her decision to eat the cat food to the director which just irritates Stan even further. Stan is grossed out and remarks “You are so dead,” to himself.

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In order to find Stan, Michelle is going to need Francine’s help.

Back in the present, Michelle appears in Francine’s room and splashes her with water in order to wake her up. She explains to Francine what happened, and when Francine gets mad Michelle asks rhetorically if she blames mothers who lose their kids at the mall. When Francine gives her an “Are you serious?” look in response, Michelle answers the question emphatically herself with a, “No! No, you don’t!” Realizing what Stan is up to, Francine reluctantly drags herself out of bed and heads for the bathroom. When Michelle expresses her impatience, Francine tells her she isn’t going back to that filthy decade without some Purell.

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Stan makes an important discovery, and we find out Donald Sutherland is a real creep. Maybe that’s why he declined to voice himself.

Filming wraps for the day and Stan keeps close as Fonda retreats to her dressing room accompanied by Donald Sutherland (Chris Diamontopoulis). It’s while watching these two interact that Stan realizes it was Sutherland who put those liberal ideas into Fonda’s head. He then corrects himself that Fonda isn’t his target and that he must instead kill Donald Sutherland! Sutherland immediately confronts him as he was apparently standing beside Stan, but he’s a bit clueless and asks Stan if he’s here to give Fonda her massage. Stan decides that he is indeed here to do just that remarking that it would be rather nice to do so. Sutherland then leaves him to it and as Stan closes the door to Fonda’s dressing room we hear him announce his arrival and tells her to finish her cat food.

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Roger, about to make a life-changing discovery.

Stan then follows Sutherland and Fonda out to a restaurant, Elaine’s, but is prevented from entering since he’s not on the list. He then goes around the back to sneak in with the restaurant staff while stashing his gun in his pants. Once he disappears inside, we see some waiters come out for a smoke break. One of them is clearly Roger in disguise. When the other waiter asks if he got the part he tried out for he replies, “No, they were looking for someone more flesh-colored with a nose.” The other waiter tells him to give up on his dreams and leaves him. As Roger sits dejected, he notices something in the snow. It’s the disco tape that fell out of Stan’s jacket before he went inside. When Roger reads the title he announces it’s from the future! And since he’s an alien from outer space, he deems that plausible.

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The encounter that will doom Christmas.

At the restaurant, Stan is finishing up in a restroom when a hairy-looking dude emerges from a stall. Stan notices the man is smoking marijuana, and Stan admonishes him for doing so. The guy doesn’t seem bothered by it, and goes on to introduce himself as Marty, Marty Scorsese (Grimes). When Stan begins to gush and says he loves his films, Marty is shocked and assumes Stan has seen his film of a guy shaving. Stan is amused, but then assures him he’s going to be great, but that he’ll never win an Oscar if he’s hooked on drugs. Marty agrees, and starts humorously removing all of the drug paraphernalia on his person which includes many bags, joints, and even a bong in his pants. Stan is touched, and the two have a nice, men’s room, hug.

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The artists don’t usually get to draw dinosaurs so let’s throw ’em a bone!

Meanwhile, Michelle has overshot her magic and taken Francine back to the Jurassic period. They observe some cute little dinosaurs running past before a T-Rex eats them causing the two to scream before Michelle gets them out of there. You can’t play around with time travel and not show a dinosaur at some point.

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Stan assuming his cool, assassin, pose.

Feeling quite satisfied, Stan returns to the task at hand:  killing Donald Sutherland. He spots Sutherland and Fonda having dinner and when Sutherland suggests Fonda get involved in politics, he offers to talk about them over a drink at “my place.” Stan counters as he pulls out his gun with, “Let’s talk about it over your brains. Maybe all over the place?” Before he can pull the trigger, and before anyone seems to notice him, Michelle and Francine appear and pull him aside. The two express their anger with Stan, and when Francine says they won’t allow him to kill Jane Fonda, Stan corrects them to point out he’s now targeting Sutherland, the lanky, Canadian, Kiefer-spawning bastard! That doesn’t matter much to Michelle and Francine as they’re not about to let Stan murder anyone and they quickly take him back to the present.

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Something clearly went wrong.

Or do they? When the trio arrive, they find the Smith living room looks different. It’s drab, with cinderblocks for furniture and Communist posters on the wall. When Francine calls out for Steve and Hayley, a Russian man comes down the stairs firing a shotgun at them. They quickly run out into the street and find the country is now under the dominion of the Russians! Michelle gets to turn all glowy and dramatic as she informs Stan that he destroyed America! Francine then pauses to pee beside a car as she’s been holding it in since the 70s.

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A monument commemorating the birth of this new, Russian, empire.

Michelle then does some sleuthing on some tablet she has to try and figure out what happened. She knows Stan did something, but he insists he did nothing that would change the past. She has him go over what he did while in 1970 and when he gets to the part about meeting Scorsese in the bathroom Michelle gets a hit. It seems by getting Scorsese off drugs, he never went on to make Taxi Driver. And since he didn’t make Taxi Driver, John Hinckley never became obsessed with actress Jodi Foster and thus never attempted to impress her by assassinating President Reagan. Since Reagan didn’t survive an assassination attempt, he lacked the good will to beat back Mondale in the presidential election of 1984 and upon becoming president, Mondale would hand the country over to Russia. Stan then realizes that in order to stop Russia from overtaking America, he needs to travel back to the past and film Taxi Driver. When Francine objects to point out how crazy that conclusion is, Michelle steps in to say Stan is right as she’s apparently just as crazy as he is.

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Roger and his precious tape.

As those three set out to right Stan’s wrong, we check-in on Roger who’s about to make his first million selling disco songs to Clive Davis. He’s been milking that cassette he found like Biff from Back to the Future Part II and having a good time of it. He celebrates his fortune by heading to a nightclub and shouts at the sky for his mom to see him now! He then tells her to stop looking while he snorts some cocaine, and then tells her she can look again as he resumes dancing.

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Stan Smith is not a Robert DeNiro fan.

On the set of Taxi Driver, Stan is watching as Robert DeNiro (Diamantopoulis) rehearses. DeNiro is talking to himself in the mirror and Stan objects. He instructs DeNiro to talk at himself in the mirror and not at the mirror, which DeNiro finds absurd and quits. Francine is pissed at Stan for driving DeNiro away, but he assures her it’s fine since they only need Hinkley to fall for Jodi Foster. Michelle, once again, goes along with Stan who is now delighted he can make Taxi Driver with the leading man he thinks would be best:  John Wayne.

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Ever wonder what Taxi Driver would look like with John Wayne in the lead role?

At a showing of the finished film, Stan, Francine, and Michelle find John Hinckley in the audience and observe him watching the film’s climax. In it, Foster’s character is tied up and about to be set on fire by Native Americans doing an inflammatory dance routine. Wayne shows up in his cab and emerges, old and fat and with a mohawk under his traditional cowboy hat. He shoots all of the Native Americans and rescues Foster as a boom mic comes into the shot and knocks over a background, indicating they shot and edited this thing rather poorly. When it’s over, Francine immediately starts asking Hinckley what he thought and when Francine suggests that Foster was pretty hot he acts disgusted. Realizing their plan failed, Michelle identifies one last resort.

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Roger did not take Larry’s advice and switch off speaker phone.

In 1981, Regan is staying at the Hilton and he’s about to be shot. Only now, he’s not. Meanwhile, high above Roger is partying away when his phone rings. It’s someone named Larry, who informs Roger his last album only sold 90 copies and that disco is dead. He’s broke. Roger can’t believe it and when he asks how he could be broke when he has a bunch of investments and race horses, he then says “I thought you were feeding them?!” indicating there was some confusion over what to do with the race horses once purchased. Roger then tries to kill himself by jumping through the window of his penthouse, but that glass is pretty damn thick and he just gets knocked out.

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It’s time for Stan to get nuts!

At ground level, Michelle has spelled it out for Stan that in order to save Christmas (remember, this is a Christmas episode) he needs to shoot his idol, Ronald Reagan. Stan insists he can’t do it, but he’s reminded he needs to do it if he wants Christmas back. Stan reasons they could learn Russian and be happy, though he also laments he’ll probably miss a lot of elevators at first while he learns how to say “Hold the door,” in Russian. He then reminds Francine that they’ll be fine as long as they’re together as a family, indicating that maybe he has learned the true meaning of Christmas. Or at least one of them. Michelle then informs him there’s no guarantee Hayley and Steve exist now, and if he really wants to save Christmas and his family, he’s going to have to shoot Reagan. Stan reluctantly agrees, and when Michelle reminds him that he just has to “wing him” Stan laughs and thanks her for reminding him indicating that he was probably going to shoot to kill.

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If you’re doing A Christmas Carol, even loosely like this one, you still have to have this scene.

As Reagan is shown leaving the hotel. Stan makes his way through the crowd like a crazy person. He pulls out his gun and then starts shouting “Merry Christmas!” over and over as he opens fire. The screen goes white and then fades to reveal Stan and Francine asleep in their bed. Francine wakes up and immediately wakes Stan who runs to the window and opens it. He sees a paper boy outside who looks almost exactly like the kid on the cover of Paper Boy for the Nintendo Entertainment System. When he asks the kid what day it is, he responds that it’s Christmas and Stan then barks at him to get off his lawn!

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Stan mostly puts Christmas back together.

Downstairs, Stan has boarded up the broken window and re-setup the mangled tree. The gifts are re-wrapped and Hayley and Steve come down the stairs overjoyed to see that Christmas is back. Roger then comes into the room drunk explaining that Christmas reminds him how he created disco and then lost all of his money. The family laughs at him and then Stan is summoned into the kitchen by Michelle. There she thanks him for bailing her ass out by giving him a gift. He opens it to find a shiny, new, Glock. Michelle says she had just enough time to hit the mall last night for it, and when Stan questions how she got it so fast apparently bypassing the waiting period, she reminds him that he only shot Reagan. He never hit James Brady, and thus there was never passage of The Brady Bill which means guns are as easy to buy as a stick of gum. Stan is delighted and mugs for the camera with a “Best Christmas ever!”

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Roger no longer needs to be depressed that he hasn’t accomplished anything in his time on Earth, now he can lament that he lost his fortune when disco died. Also, his genitals are located near his armpit.

This is a pretty great early episode of American Dad! Stan is very much the conservative whack-job throughout and it’s obvious that the absurd War on Christmas notion is what drove the writers to craft this plot. It’s also possible they worked backward from the premise of what if Stan had to shoot his hero in order to save Christmas? The show is jam-packed with jokes as almost every sentence Stan utters is a joke of some kind. They’re just understated jokes, which is one of the main differences between American Dad! and Family Guy. Family Guy seems to rarely trust its audience with knowing what is and isn’t a joke and everything is practically screamed at the audience. American Dad! is far more confident, and while it does get absurd and thrust things into the forefront at times, it rarely feels obnoxious.

Since Stan is essentially an easy target, there are some jokes in this episode that could be considered easy, maybe even lazy. Even with those though, the show goes the extra mile to add a spin to make them seem less conventional. A perfect example is Stan’s argument with the clerk over his holiday greeting. The episode makes a point of demonstrating that Stan can be agreeable and even sympathetic to the plight of the working man who has to do as he’s commanded when the clerk makes the comment about not being able to change the name of the store from The 99 Cent Depot to The $1.07 Store to account for tax. Stan accepts that, but he can’t accept the kid saying “Happy Holidays” even though he’s directed to by his boss who can and probably will fire him for saying anything else. And because Stan’s a maniac, it has to escalate to Stan pulling a gun for added comedic effect.

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Coming up with a plot that involves Stan finding the true meaning of Christmas thus saving the holiday doesn’t take a ton of creativity. Having Stan replace John Hinckley Jr. as Reagan’s would-be assassin? Now that’s genius!

If the episode did begin with the premise of Stan shooting Reagan to save Christmas, then the writers also did a good job of making that happen. While American Dad! mostly behaves like a sitcom, it’s not afraid to get fantastical and do some crazy stuff. Granted, so many shows have done a variation of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life that weren’t particularly crazy, but it’s still quite a leap to have your characters time travel. This show will get way more fantastic in that regard, but this episode is largely able to rise above the notion of being an adaptation of that holiday classic without really feeling like one. Normally I hate to give time to anything that indulges in the trope, but American Dad! makes it work quite well.

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Lisa Kudrow is pretty wonderful as Michelle, The Ghost of Christmas Past. The show gives her a lot to work with and her personality meshes well with the character.

The only downside with this episode is that it’s actually pretty light on Christmas. It begins festive enough, but once we jump back in time it’s actually easy to forget that this is a Christmas episode of American Dad! It manages to hang onto its premise though and that’s Stan needing to learn the true meaning of Christmas, which the episode defines as basically family time. It’s actually a surprisingly warm conclusion for a show not afraid to do cynical or dark endings. Of course, there’s a touch of the show’s cynicism in the ending since Stan has created a world in which guns are even more accessible. This probably isn’t my favorite Christmas episode from this show, but it’s definitely a good measuring stick for all of them. And since I’ve managed to avoid American Dad! (not intentionally, it just happened that way) while doing this countdown for years now, you can safely assume it will return next year as there’s a lot more I can turn to.

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“Best Christmas ever!”

American Dad! currently airs on both TBS and Cartoon Network almost daily. As a result, you should have no problem finding an airing of this episode at some point this month, and probably more than once. And if cable isn’t your thing, the show is streaming on Hulu and also available on physical media and for digital purchase all over the place. This should be an easy one to find and it comes recommended.


Dec. 17 – Family Guy – “Don’t Be a Dickens at Christmas”

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Christmas comes to Quahog.

So it’s come to this. We’re doing Family Guy. I don’t mean to come across as a snob or some animation elitist (after all, we already did Robot Chicken), but I don’t care for most of Family Guy. That wasn’t always the case. When the show originally aired on Fox I actually liked it quite a bit. And when it came to Cartoon Network I watched it almost every night. The absurdist humor, often relying on shock or surprise, was refreshing for a moment. It came at a good time as The Simpsons was coming off of its high and network animation was kind of flailing. The show was rather ugly and that first season was a bit rough, but I have mostly positive memories of seasons two and three and I have the DVD sets somewhere in my house.

Then, of course, the show made a surprising comeback. DVD sales and Cartoon Network ratings gave Fox enough confidence to order a new season. That new season premiered in 2005, and 14 years later Family Guy appears to be going strong. What changed for me over the years? Well, shock and random humor gets old. The show fell into the trap where it needed to top itself. Have Peter unexpectedly fight a chicken for five minutes? Well, then you to need bring him back and have the fight last for eight minutes! The characters gradually got meaner and less likable. Everyone dumps on Meg to the point where it’s not funny and it feels like there is no joke that is too low. The cut-away gags have become parody at this point as the show apparently decided to double-down when South Park called them out on how lazy those jokes were way back when.

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Like probably a lot of folks, there was a time when Family Guy really appealed to me, but those days are long gone.

It’s not all terrible though. The Stewie and Brian pairing still seems to work and often brings out the best of the show. I’ll give those a watch anytime I notice them. I also still really enjoy the show’s inaugural Christmas episode, “A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas” and the double-length “Road to the North Pole” has its moments as well. That gives me some reason for optimism as we tackle today’s episode, “Don’t Be a Dickens at Christmas.” This episode is pretty modern having premiered as part of Season 16 on December 10, 2017. There’s still a chance this could go very wrong, and the title implies yet another parody of A Christmas Carol. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that one of television’s least imaginative comedy series would turn to Dickens for a Christmas special, and I’m not. The only surprise is that they held off until Season 16 to do it.

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The Pawtucket Brewery all covered in smog and snow for Christmas.

The episode opens with the standard credits, so this one isn’t scoring any bonus points for a festive intro. We’re immediately taken to the Pawtucket Brewery where Peter (Seth MacFarlane) works. Angela (Carrie Fisher, in her final appearance on the show) is trying to inform the workers that they’re getting out early on account of Christmas, but Peter keeps interrupting her by playing Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on an old boom box. This happens three times before Angela just gives up on her speech and tells everyone to go home. As Peter races out, his coworkers turn into the cast of Dazed and Confused. The Matthew McConaughey character is present. When Peter inquires what he’s doing for Christmas, it leads him into a parody of McConaughey’s Lincoln car commercials (remember those?) immediately dating this episode. In the parody, he’s driving around aimlessly with two teens tied up in his backseat (he’s embarking on a “slay” ride). The joke ends with a voiceover saying “Lincoln – What are we doing?” which is a typical way too on the nose joke that this show is frequently guilty of.

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The family is rolling with nontraditional clothes, always a plus.

The setting shifts to the home of the Griffins and everyone is decorating while they await the return of their patriarch. Lois (Alex Borstein) is hanging stockings and points out they always hang a stocking for son Chris’s stillborn twin who was to be named Tmas (thud). Brian (MacFarlane) takes this opportunity to inform the family what he got them all for Christmas – volunteering at a homeless shelter. Chris (Seth Green) and Meg (Mila Kunis) immediately protest while Stewie (MacFarlane) is surprisingly chill with it. Lois resumes her old identity of thoughtful parent and says it’s a lovely gift and will be good for the kids, then punctuates it with a tasteless remark about watching the homeless shit through their pants. Meg fills stockings with Kanye Canes, and it’s another joke that goes on way too long and was never funny. The voiceover from the Lincoln commercial returns to announce the “Family Guy Christmas Special” and again asks “What are we thinking?” I’m thinking you’re having trouble filling out 22 minutes.

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Peter never fails to disappoint his unloved ones.

The family then moves to the lawn when Chris spots Peter’s car speeding towards home. They’re surprisingly giddy about him coming home, but he just speeds by spraying mud on them. Lois lets us know he’s heading for the bar, while Stewie points out he actually had to go out of his way to do this.

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This Norm MacDonald bit is probably the best sequence of the episode.

At the bar, Peter is enjoying some cold ones with his pals Quagmire (MacFarlane), Cleveland (Mike Henry), and Joe (Patrick Warburton) and watching Norm MacDonald (himself) read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas on television. MacDonald gets hung up on the word ‘Twas and keeps getting sidetracked as he tries to read the story. This is actually solid writing for MacDonald which makes me wonder if he did it himself or if the writers just know Norm well enough to do him right. The bit ends with Norm getting fired and goes into a joke about what Cleveland is doing for Christmas (it’s bad, and will pop up again). Peter then announces he wants to get home before the over-enthusiastic carolers arrive. He’s too late as the carolers enter and quickly overrun the bar, converting Quagmire in the process. They’re depicted almost like a singing horde of zombies. It’s not very funny, but at least it’s not offensive, and that’s basically the bar we’ve established here.

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A gag that’s pretty similar to one from the first Christmas special in which Lois keeps asking Peter to do stuff he doesn’t want to do.

At the Griffin home, we’re “treated” to a long fake commercial for those laser lights people project on their homes at Christmas. This feels like low-hanging fruit. The commercial doesn’t really make fun of the product and instead turns into a joke about blind people. Peter then arrives home and is eager to watch some Patrick Swayze movie, but before his ass hits the couch Lois informs him he has some chores to get done. He literally freezes in place in mid-sitting motion as she reads of a list that begins rather mundanely, and then ventures into absurd territories finishing with her requesting he move the house a few inches. Peter groans and asks if he can do some of it tomorrow, but Lois tells him he can’t because they’re volunteering at the homeless shelter. Peter is angry when he finds out he’s expected to go leading to a fight between the two and Chris fearful that the divorce is finally coming. Lois tells Peter she’s sick of his selfishness and then takes the kids to Newport to spend Christmas with her parents leaving Peter home alone with his Swayze movie. He then does a cut-away about taking a too full bath which doesn’t even come close to landing.

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That’s no Marley.

After a rather lovely exterior shot of the Griffen house in the snow, we find Peter inebriated on his couch watching a Patrick Swayze Christmas movie of some kind. He confesses his love for Swayze, then passes out. As he does, a burst of light fills the room and moves beside the Christmas tree. An ethereal voice beckons him to wake up. Peter opens his eyes and questions if the voice belongs to Santa, only to find out it belongs to Patrick Swayze (Don Swayze, Patrick’s real life brother, provides his voice). Peter is confused as this is 2017 and Swayze is long dead prompting Swayze to ask him if he ever saw Ghost? Swayze tells him he’s here to restore Peter’s Christmas spirit. Peter then goes into his Roadhouse gag from many episodes ago, and Swayze joins him.

After the break, Peter is shown gushing over the ghost of Patrick Swayze and even remarks he wants to run through his hair. Swayze indulges him and Peter is shown prancing like a deer through a brown meadow. He comes out of it to find himself at his home in the year 1970-80-90 when President Richard-Reagan-Clinton was in office. This is actually a clever joke at how these long-running animated series in which the characters are frozen in time have to keep reevaluating when they were born.

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“Look how thin I was!”

Inside the home, Peter and Patrick watch as a young Peter wakes up on Christmas morning. He plays with his new toys, and his mom brings him a plate of cookies for breakfast. Peter remarks how he really had the Christmas spirit back then and wonders how he lost it. He then directs our attention to his friend Holden who enters the room. Peter makes a comments that this is when he could talk, then ponders what happened. We then see him later in life at an airport trying to get to a bathroom. A little girl keeps shouting “Hold it in” and he eventually collapses  on Peter’s floor repeating the phrase until it becomes “Holden.” Peter tells Swayze this is a Game of Thrones joke and says he’d think it’s funny if he hadn’t died before the show premiered.

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Carter’s house is looking pretty nice. Why wouldn’t Peter want to spend Christmas here?

Patrick then takes Peter to the present, as he is playing the role of all of the ghosts apparently. First stop is weather man Ollie Willaims’ (Phil LaMarr) home who just yells at his kid. Next up is the home of Opie (Mark Hentemen), Peter’s co-worker with a severe speech impediment and possible brain injury that results in him mostly being unintelligible. He’s dressed up as Santa and gives his kids presents, then leaves and reappears with his kids apparently completely unaware it was him despite how preposterous that is. He then moves to the window and watches an old man reunite with his family as the theme from Home Alone plays. He then starts to sing it and subtitles appear that just say “Home Alone Theme – We think,” – isn’t making fun of brain damage fun? They then go to Cleveland’s house where Cleveland and his family revisit the joke from earlier of them listening to an R&B record in which it takes the African American singer a ridiculously long amount of time to get through a single syllable. It’s still not funny. Peter remarks that at least they’re together as a family, and Swayze informs him he knows one family that is not.

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Lois probably slept with the butler this night.

We’re taken to Newport, where the rest of Peter’s family is enjoying a meal from Boston Market. Lois’s Dad, Carter (MacFarlane), then mocks the family for doubting the quality of Boston Market, which I guess is a complement to the venerable chain? He then tells them they need to call his grandmother, Nana Pewderschmidt. He puts her on speaker phone and she’s speaking in German. I bet you know where this is going. Carter ends the call once she predictably starts complaining about Jews and then declares it’s time for figgy pudding. As they sit down for dessert, Meg questions her brother if they should call Dirt. Chris thinks she means Dad, but she corrects him that she means Dirt who she describes as some fat guy that sleeps with Lois. Lois is shown having an awkward exchange with a butler, and Peter informs Swayze that she’s using her flirty laugh. He tells Swayze it’s a subtle laugh, and you need to really know her to notice it. We then cut back to Lois who is now grabbing the butler by the face and demanding to see his penis. Cut back to Peter who is still trying to explain the subtlety of the situation. Before he can get more upset he shouts “Oh no, they got Joe!” and the carolers from earlier burst in and now they have both Joe and Quagmire in their ranks.

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I think we all expected this, or something like it, at some point.

Peter is then returned to his home, alone. He declares that Swayze hasn’t scared him, and he soon finds himself transported into the movie Ghost. It’s the infamous pottery wheel scene, only Peter isn’t playing Demi Moore’s part, but is actually the pottery. Swayze is there and tells him he’s now the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as he handles Peter’s malleable anatomy. And then we’re off to the future to find Quagmire, Joe, and Cleveland seated at the bar mourning the loss of their friend. Quagmire informs us that Lois had to sell everything to afford the funeral, and he unhappily displays the underwear he bought off of her. Peter is oblivious to who they’re mourning and for some reason assumes it’s a guy named Benjamin.

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Meet Lance. They don’t really do anything with him so there isn’t really a joke here. Lois just found someone a lot more attractive than Peter once he was out of the way.

Patrick then takes Peter to former Griffin household to drive the point home. Lois calls up to her husband to come downstairs pointing out how he’s out of frame. This allows Peter to get excited thinking he may have finally lost weight, but when a guy named Lance comes down instead he declares he must have finally worked up the courage to leave Lois. We now get to see the kids and the first to come downstairs is Chris who declares he’s going to Colombia. He doesn’t mean the school and means the country where he’ll be smuggling drugs in his rectum. Meg then comes downstairs and declares she’s going to Yale and Peter surprisingly gets ahead of the joke and knows she got a job with a lock maker. A very plump Stewie emerges to say he’s going to brown…some sausages for breakfast. Peter is happy his kids got Ivy League puns, but he wants to know where Brian is.

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Peter as a ghost dog fart. You read that correctly.

Swayze then takes Peter to a cemetery where a very old Brian is sleeping beside a tombstone. Peter still doesn’t get it and Patrick has to point out it’s his grave. The born date on the tombstone references the previous 1970-80-90 joke from earlier. He died five years before this moment when his Milf on a Shelf accidentally set his Christmas tree on fire with her cigarette. A ghost Peter then appears and we find out that this ghost is actually a dog fart. You see, people who lose their Christmas spirit and then die become dog farts for all eternity. He then disappears, but Swayze assures him he’ll reappear soon since Brian is a dog of 13. And sure enough, the ghost of Peter does return and warns Peter about his fate. More ghosts appear and they all have something gross to tell him about Brian’s rectum. They surround Peter and spin around causing him to collapse to the ground crying out he doesn’t want this to be.

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Peter using Instagram porn stars as a way of telling what day it is definitely works. He’s the type of guy that probably sends lots of awkward messages to such girls on a daily basis.

Peter then finds himself back at home on Christmas morning. He checks his phone to find that all of the porn girls he follows on Instagram are wearing Santa hats in their pictures which is how he knows it’s Christmas. He names a few of them and refers to them as thirst traps.

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There’s a pair of additional surprises under the tree this year.

We then return to Newport where everyone is opening presents. Meg declares everything is perfect, while Lois seems a bit blue. Chris informs us that every time Carter bends over they can see his genitals which horrifies Stewie. Peter then bursts in looking a bit disheveled carrying a sack full of hastily bought presents. Meg reacts by calling him Dirt, so that clears up some confusion from earlier. He distributes a bunch of awful gifts which his family actually enjoy. Meg is shocked to be given a gift of any kind from her father, who apparently has never bought her anything. Peter and Lois embrace, and then the ghost of Patrick Swayze appears. Peter asks him if there’s anything he can do for him, and Swayze says “Well, there’s one thing in Heaven that Chris Farley won’t do for me,” which leads into Peter and Swayze reenacting the Saturday Night Live bit where he and Farley danced to “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” as part of the infamous Chippendales sketch.

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This pretty much had to happen.

As the two gyrate and Peter loses his clothes, we see the rest of the family can’t see Patrick or hear the music. Lois instructs them all to just keep opening presents as Peter will eventually tire himself out. Carter then resumes handing out the gifts and everyone grimaces when he bends over. The licensed track returns as we move to an exterior shot of the Pewderschmidt compound. In an effort to fill time, a subtitle appears confessing the writers unironically enjoy the song. They then confirm this is being done to fill time as the episode ends with a festive rendition of “Jingle Bells” over the credits.

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The family’s reaction to Peter’s nearly nude dancing seems a bit overdone. This type of behavior from Peter should be expected.

I had the lowest expectations going into this one. Not only is it an episode of Family Guy, but it’s also a parody of A Christmas Carol. That should mean disaster, but it’s mostly fine. The vast majority of the jokes don’t land. This is a show that believes in quantity over quality as it’s just joke after joke after joke. And there’s no subtlety to any of it. Some of the jokes made me groan, but there were at least a few clever ones. I don’t think anything made me laugh out loud, but there were at least a few that made me smile. The show loves returning to jokes from earlier in the episode and even from previous episodes. This approach can be rewarding, but when the joke wasn’t very funny to begin with it doesn’t really work.

One thing I did enjoy was the use of Patrick Swayze. I was a bit alarmed when he showed up initially as I expected some really tasteless dead celebrity jokes to follow, but they really didn’t go for any of that. Since he was voiced by Swayze’s brother, it’s reasonable to assume that nothing in this episode would have offended the actor. It felt more like a love letter to Swayze as the character of Peter has shown an affection for him in the past. The ending scene of the duo reenacting the Chippendale’s sketch from SNL was actually more sweet than funny, which I enjoyed. It was a rather nice way to end the episode.

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This is a rather fun shot for the episode to go out on.

Family Guy has never been a show that’s all that enjoyable to actually look at, but I do like the seasonal settings in this one. The show has an honesty in how it portrays snow, which is more gray than white as it quickly gets dirtied by the environment. The homes of both the Griffins and Pewderschmidts are tastefully lit and the interior shots are warm and festive.

“Don’t Be a Dickens at Christmas” was merely all right. If I were to find myself in front of the TV watching a lineup of Christmas episodes on Adult Swim I’d probably watch this one. If I were actually seeking out a Christmas episode of Family Guy then I’d still definitely turn to the one from Season 3. My expectations for this show are so low at this point that when an episode doesn’t leave me disgusted it feels like a victory. I suppose that’s not a glowing recommendation, but you could do worse.

If you wish to catch this one on television this year, just keep your eyes open. Family Guy airs all of the time on cable and one of the many networks that airs the show will likely show this one multiple times this month. Of course, we’re getting late in the game here so if you missed it, well there’s always Hulu or various streaming services where you can either rent or buy the episode. I wouldn’t pay money for it, but I’m also not you. I suppose if you’re a fan of Family Guy then you probably like this episode just fine and you’re also probably irritated with me at this point. And that too, is fine.


Dec. 2 – Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special

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First broadcast December 16, 2012.

This is going to be a bit of an experiment. These recaps the last few years have basically focused on cartoons or live-action shows in which a story is told over some duration. I have so far avoided sketch shows, not purposely, but it’s definitely been in the back of my mind that doing a write-up in this style is a bit more challenging with a sketch show. It’s like reviewing or recapping several micro episodes of a TV show.

And when it comes to micro-sized entertainment, Robot Chicken should be the first show that comes to mind. Each episode is about 11 minutes long and contains an irregular number of sketches within that 11 minutes, some of which are literally just a few seconds long. Most of these are animated using stop-motion techniques with action figures in place of true puppets. Often these action figures require modification to animate in a more desirable fashion and when that is needed clay appears to be the medium of choice.

img_4139Robot Chicken is the brain child of Seth Green and Matthew Senreich. Green, as the most visible star associated with the brand, often handles a lot of the voicing duties and appears to get a lot of help from his Family Guy co-stars as well. Senreich, along with writers Douglas Goldstein and Tom Root, are veterans of ToyFare magazine which would often contain a comic in its pages called Twisted ToyFare Theater that is basically Robot Chicken in print form. Those sequences were popular, so it’s not that surprising to see the concept was taken to television where Robot Chicken has had a presence on Adult Swim since 2005.

Robot Chicken has been an ally to Christmas from almost day one. There have been several holiday editions of the show and some themes have sprung up. Santa Claus is a reoccurring character in these shorts and he is, I believe, always voiced by Seth MacFarlane. The show will often poke fun at classic holiday specials or just do something nerdy and goofy like pit Goku from Dragon Ball against a Christmas villain. There’s elements of shock humor to go along with the mostly nerd humor and shorts often get pretty violent for comedic purposes. It’s not a show for everyone, but it’s certainly aided by its brief runtime so when an episode misses the mark it’s usually not around long enough to truly stink up the place.

In 2012 Robot Chicken debuted its ATM Christmas Special, which I assume stands for Ass to Mouth because that’s the sort of humor the show goes for. Even though the show is on Adult Swim, it may have been difficult to actually get that phrase into the episode title and it’s a bit cheeky to make it an acronym anyway.

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Santa is pissed he nearly slept through Christmas.

The special opens in festive fashion with a parody of the old CBS Special logo that leads into a story about Santa (MacFarlane). It seems Santa forgot to schedule a wake-up call as he wakes up late for Christmas. It’s a scramble to the work shop where a ranting Santa takes his anger out on the poor elves. Santa is done as a doll, while most of the elves look like claymation and doll parts or something. The scramble continues to the sleigh and the reindeer are all messed up prompting Santa to fire the elf attendant, who cries, as Santa leaves.

 

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Someone got fired for that one.

From the skies Santa and his assistant chuck presents rather than do the usual infiltration thing. They’re depicted more like bombs as they cause all kinds of destruction, including claiming the life of a poor homeless man. A satellite image from space shows Earth with little tiny explosions dotting the surface. Santa makes it back to the North Pole relieved he pulled it off until he finds a lone present he missed. He vows to make the delivery and races to the home where it apparently belongs. I guess because time’s a factor, he opts to use the front door rather than the chimney, but it’s locked. As Santa pulls and wrestles with the door knob, the scene changed to reveal this is all a nightmare and Santa is at home in bed choking his wife. Some elves race in and use a cattle prod on him to subdue him, causing Mrs. Claus (Elizabeth Banks) to declare she hates Christmas.

 

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And whoa this thing got dark pretty quick!

We then smash cut to the real opening credits, which largely depict the short we just watched, but everything is in red. There’s also some clips of shorts still to come as we head into our next skit.

 

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This guy is angry at Jewish people for making him work on Christmas. That’s the joke.

A Chinese man is shown on the phone at a restaurant. He’s talking to his wife, but we only hear his side of the conversation. He’s bemoaning that he can’t come home and celebrate Christmas because a Jewish family is there and is just hanging out after their meal. We can see them at a table in the background. The man then declares he hates Jews, which is apparently the punchline of the skit.

 

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Well isn’t this a nice holiday setting!

We then jump to a living room setting on Christmas. A delighted Christmas tree (Henry Winkler) is busy declaring how lucky it is to have been adopted by this family. It’s a happy, warm, Christmas setting that ends with a little girl hugging the tree. Then we cut to a woman dragging the browning tree out the front door. It is completely unaware of what is about to happen and the woman tells the tree they’re going on vacation. It’s pretty excited and remains so as she leaves it on the curb for the garbage man to collect. As the tree is tossed into the truck, it insists it’s not garbage, but then it sees the father and daughter watching from a window as they close the curtains.

 

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On Robot Chicken, there are no happy endings.

The tree is taken to a toilet paper factory, and several weeks later we see what became of it. It’s toilet paper and sitting on a shelf in a grocery store. The image of the tree on the packaging is capable of talking and narrating the thoughts of the still sentient plant as it openly hopes it mostly gets used for boogers or urine. Then it recognizes something offscreen, and it’s the mom and daughter of the family who threw it away. It’s actually happy to see them, until the mother declares they’re having Indian food for dinner.

 

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Check it out! He had a big foot! Laugh!

We then get a brief skit of some kids looking at the stockings over the fireplace. One is huge, and they declare “No fair,” as the camera pans to reveal it belongs to Big Foot Danny, a kid with a really big foot.

 

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Well, at least he’s not choking her this time.

Back to Santa, who is seated in a lounge chair with an apparent broken leg. Mrs. Claus comes in to give him his Christmas present:  a candy cane (get it?). Santa is excited and he stands up to test it out and, finding it’s an actual oversized candy cane, collapses to the ground as the cane snaps apart. He then scolds the woman for making a cane out of candy and expecting it to work. The skit ends with Santa wondering if he broke his tibia while I worry for the well-being of Mrs. Claus.

 

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I guess Justin Bieber jokes were still funny in 2012. I guess.

In a warmly lit den by the fire decorated for Christmas, Justine Bieber (Lucas Grabeel) prepares to play us a song. He’s joined by Santa on guitar and a snowman on drums. He then rips into the song, which is probably titled “Fuck Christmas” because that’s what he mostly says. It’s an aggressive, angry, tune that gets its point across. The scene ends with two executives watching this unfold. One remarks they should have just stuck with David Cassidy, while the other enthusiastically declares that Bieber is a true artist.

 

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It’s Santa vs Jason Bourne! The fight you never wanted!

We’re then taken to a more desolate location. It’s Jason Bourne, a convincing looking doll, and he turns his head dramatically to spot someone closing in from behind. It’s Santa Claus, and there are no words spoken as Santa pulls a sharpened candy cane from his coat. The two fight, and the choreography is actually pretty intense. Bourne gets the better of the Kringle though, ending the fight by stabbing Santa with his own candy cane.

 

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How did you expect it to end? The guy is beyond elderly!

Santa is then shown laying on the ground coughing up blood. He remarks that Jason is a hard man to find and pulls out a Christmas present. Okay. Bourne takes it as Santa bleeds out and dies and seems to react enthusiastically to receiving a copy of the board game Parcheesi.

 

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Hey kid, I know how you feel as I had the same reaction to this joke.

A quick skit of a Lego family at Christmas runs. The kid seems unhappy to have received another block for Christmas and reacts with mock enthusiasm. That’s it.

 

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What are you supposed to get a ninja for Christmas? Robot Chicken seeks to answer that very question.

At G.I. Joe headquarters, some of the Joes are sitting around trying to figure out what to get Snake Eyes for Christmas. These appear to be actual toys from the toy line. They don’t know what to get him because he never tells them what he wants (he’s mute, in case you were unaware) and we see a cut-away to last Christmas when they just gave him a coffee mug that says “I Heart Ninjas.”

 

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Storm Shadow has never looked better.

Scarlett (Banks) declares she knows what Snake Eyes really wants, and we cut to the Joes surrounding a building in a snowy environment. They enter and it’s revealed to be the home of Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes’ rival. He’s in his usual white ninja suit, but also is sporting a pink bath robe. The Joes attack, but they get their asses handed to them.

 

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The question remains unanswered.

On Christmas morning, Duke (Skeet Ulrich) approaches a seated Snake Eyes and tosses his present at him. It’s another mug. Meanwhile, we can see the rest of the Joes have all been beaten up pretty bad and look rather miserable. Snake Eyes, even though he’s wearing a mask, seems perplexed by the hostile treatment.

 

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Nothing says “Christmas” quite like Kano.

We’re whisked away to a store where a woman is in the embarrassing position of having her credit card declined. The clerk can’t do anything about it as she bemoans how tough life has been for her and her two boys since their father passed away. The man behind her overhears the clerk say her name, Mrs. Cage, and it causes him to remember. The man is Kano, of Mortal Kombat fame, and a thought bubble appears over his head showing him rip the heart out of Johnny Cage post match.

 

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I knew he was an asshole the moment I first laid eyes on him!

Feeling guilty, Kano helps the woman to her car and accepts an offer to join them for Christmas dinner. At the Cage residence, he uses his somersault maneuver to hang Christmas lights, and when saying “Grace,” he puts on a yamaka as a joke and everyone has a good laugh. As he helps Mrs. Cage put the kids to bed, he confesses he can’t hide from her anymore. He apologizes for what happened to Johnny and gives the widow a gift. She opens the box and is confused. Kano claims it’s Johnny’s heart, but Mrs. Cage informs him it’s not a heart. We then smash cut to Johnny Cage on a beach in a tropical environment relaying how Kano ripped out his appendix by mistake to a group of bikini-clad women. He then grabs one and the skit ends before the orgy can commence.

 

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Possibly Robot Chicken’s most popular character is The Nerd.

In our next sketch it’s Christmas morning at The Nerd’s (Green) home. He awakens excitedly in a festive red onesie and races downstairs only to find that Christmas has been stolen. His parents give him the bad news, but he takes it fairly well. That is until his mom reveals during “Pretend Christmas” what the thief made off with:  a 1985 AFA Graded Snake Eyes action figure.

 

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I like where this is going…

Despondent, The Nerd takes to the streets to find the whole neighborhood has been victimized. He finds a group of people forming a circle and one man explains it’s a vengeance circle as they’re asking The Spirit of Vengeance to violently punish the asshole who stole their stuff. He’s then told by another that he’s mistaken and this is the wrong circle, the vengeance one is nearby. This forces things to click inside The Nerd’s brain. What Christmas story involves a burglary followed by the victims holding hands and singing? He then turns around to gaze at a nearby mountain where the thief is still in the process of getting away!

 

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When you’re down and out and in need of encouragement, look to Larry Hama.

The Nerd heads off after him, and as he climbs the mountain he bemoans his choice in clothing. As he ponders giving up, he looks to Snake Eyes for help. Since Snake Eyes is mute, he doesn’t offer anything encouraging when he appears in a cloud above The Nerd’s head. Larry Hama appears though in a similar vision to encourage him to continue. The line he feeds The Nerd is corny and unoriginal and The Nerd calls him out on it. In a bit of self-deprecation, Hama remarks how he spent his career writing comics that were essentially toy commercials and is able to spur The Nerd along by threatening to read him an excerpt from his unfinished novel.

 

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He really is a stupid looking Grinch.

The Nerd makes it to the summit where he confronts the thief – The Grinch! He moans when he sees it’s not even the good Grinch from the cartoon, but the Jim Carrey Grinch. Grinch (Green) tells him it doesn’t matter, but then The Nerd uses his anger over the film ruining the “greatest cartoon ever” to motivate him to kill this Grinch. Declaring he doesn’t care about his presents, he simply kicks the sleigh (with Grinch in it) off the mountain. He then turns around to see Max whom he refers to him as the little Stockholm Syndrome dog. Max has something for The Nerd, his precious Snake Eyes toy! Only now it has teeth marks which are sure to affect the grading.

 

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And now he’s dead and likely about to get raped.

Back at street level, one of the neighborhood men drags the Grinch’s corpse over and happily displays it. The same man from earlier rejoices that The Spirit of Vengeance answered their prayers. Another man then questions if The Spirit of Vengeance would like them to rape the corpse. The first man declares why not? – it’s Christmas! And that’s how our special ends; with a rape joke.

 

Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special is certainly a sight to behold. The animation is pretty great, even when the source “puppets” are old G.I. Joe toys. I like the little through-lines with reappearing Santa throughout and the G.I. Joe sketch being sort of referenced further in the finale. The big Grinch parody was saved for last and it feels like the right spot for it. I like the self-realization of The Nerd becoming aware that he’s in a Christmas special, and even though internet nerd anger is pretty stupid, I did take some joy in this character hating on the Jim Carrey/Ron Howard Grinch while praising the superior Chuck Jones cartoon.

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There’s a tendency of the show to rely on shock humor, like a homeless guy getting decapitated by a Christmas present, but when that’s your thing it’s hard to remain shocking.

Some of the other stuff hasn’t aged super well. The “I Hate Jews” sketch, in particular, doesn’t play so well. It’s brushed off because a lot of the folks involved with this show are Jewish, and I suppose someone in a similar situation could empathize to a point, but it still felt like poor taste and just shock humor. And rape jokes are just kind of “meh” at this point. It’s another line that’s supposed to create a laugh out of shock, but the show is often so crass that it loses the ability to be shocking. I expected those people to want to desecrate the corpse of The Grinch thus negating the punch of the remark.

 

This special is loaded with guest stars who all do a pretty nice job. MacFarlane is involved with the show so often that it hardly feels right to even consider him a guest star at this point. Elizabeth Banks plays a few characters, and I was surprised to hear the voice of Henry Winkler. Larry Hama’s part isn’t acted all that well, and it was clearly shot on the cheap (maybe even wth a cell phone or something), but his willingness to basically poke fun at his own career helped to sell the moment.

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Henry Winkler’s Christmas tree is the type of character the show’s dark blend of humor works best with. Although the sketch still ended with a poop joke.

The stuff with Santa was mostly enjoyable, though the Bourne sketch wasn’t particularly funny (even though it looked great). I’m not much of a fan of G.I. Joe so that sketch fell a little flat for me. I did find the Mortal Kombat one pretty amusing, if a tad predictable, and the Christmas Tree was tragically funny as well. Overall, there were some laughs found in this tidy little Christmas special and they mostly outweigh the duds. It doesn’t stick around long enough to suck, and by positioning the best short at the end it actually does leave you wanting more. Had it ended on G.I. Joe or the stupid Bieber song I probably would feel different.

If you want to catch this special this year just keep an eye out on Adult Swim. They’re practically guaranteed to air this and the many other Robot Chicken Christmas episodes at some point this month, often even reserving some for Christmas Eve.

 


Dec. 22 – Johnny Bravo: ‘Twas the Night

TwasTheNight-JBThis thing kicked off this year with the What A Cartoon! original George & Junior’s Christmas Spectacular. The comedic bear duo failed to make a lasting impression and faded away from sight. Johnny Bravo, on the other hand, debuted via the same show, but to a much warmer reception earning him his own series. The character was created by Van Partible and some guy named Seth MacFarlane was a writer for the show. Johnny Bravo was essentially a modern guy with the personality of a 50s greaser who talked like Elvis. He wants to help the ladies and be kind of a stereotypical macho man. I guess he’s kind of like Uncle Jesse from Full House, except he thinks he’s as strong as a super hero and probably not as bright as the frontman for the Rippers. It honestly wasn’t a character that resonated with me right off the bat. I guess I just preferred child protagonists or animals in my cartoons, but it was a success and I think it was voted the #2 cartoon of the year by viewers of the What A Cartoon! show, behind only Dexter’s Laboratory which also got its own series.

“‘Twas the Night” is a cartoon from the show’s fifth episode. It, for some reason, premiered on August 4th, 1997 as the third segment in the half hour show. Why they chose to a premiere a Christmas episode in August is possibly due to many delays the show supposedly had in production. It’s possible it was meant to air closer to Christmas, or maybe even earlier for Cartoon Network’s then annual Christmas in July, but was ready when others were not. Or maybe they just didn’t care, since the broadcast lists online don’t appear to contain many gaps during the first season.

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I can’t tell if Johnny is supposed to be sitting on the roof or standing awkwardly.

The episode opens on a scenic look of a bridge and a city. There’s a narrator spinning a rendition of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” but with different words, and in a familiar voice. It’s Adam West! Oh, how we miss you Adam. He would guest star as himself on a later episode. The scene takes us to Johnny’s house where he’s preparing for bed and needs to silence his mama’s snoring. While laying in bed he hears a sound outside, he heads for the roof and spies a burglar. No, Johnny! It’s Santa! We cry out, but the thick-headed blond can’t hear us through the television and takes the poor bastard out. Santa has a busted arm as a result, and he’s pretty ticked, but also understanding, since he knows Johnny is an idiot. That and this Santa only has six reindeer, so Johnny was justified in thinking he was a fake. The problem is now he can’t fulfill his obligation to the children of the world, so Johnny is going to have to take his place.

Johnny hopes for cash and chicks in return for doing Santa’s job, but Santa threatens him with violence so he puts on the coat and the hat and takes off through the night. He screws up the names of the reindeer, then questions where the freak with the red nose is. We get a sort-of cut-away depicting laser wielding bad guys that look like Cobra rejects doing battle with a laser-nosed reindeer at the North Pole. The blasts even reach Johnny in the sky, but he pays them no mind. He whips out the list of gifts and it contains nothing but Senators all scheduled to receive coal. Johnny Bravo getting political! Their names are also almost all references to Hanna-Barbera and Warner properties so it’s worth a pause or two to read them. One senator is actually receiving a gift:  Senator Puffnstuff.

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At least the suit fits.

Johnny sets to delivering the gifts. The mayor is the first to receive his, new underwear, and he prances around happily in his living-room until his wife knocks him out with a rolling pin, “You promised me no cavorting!” He next visits little Suzie and squeezes down her chimney. He eats the cookies and drinks the milk while little Suzie is sleeping peacefully in an easy chair, “She’s kind of cute when her mouth isn’t flapping.” He then visits Jungle Boy in the jungle and delivers a new loin cloth and makeup for the gorilla girls. The gorilla king gets coal and Johnny calls him Magilla, and he’s right to take that as an insult. He then visits a hibernating Cronos the bear and gives him an alarm clock, which goes off almost immediately forcing Johnny to scramble out fast. Then he pops in on Scooby-Doo and gives him a slip of paper for speech therapy with Cindy Brady. I always thought he spoke pretty well considering he’s a dog and all.

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And he can also squeeze down a chimney. 

Johnny continues on through the night, and has a near miss with a space shuttle that’s woefully animated as it kind of bends in flight. He leaves gifts for a sleeping pair of twins, Tim and Tom. He’s depicted going all over the world causing him to question how Santa stays fat considering the work is hard. I guess working hard for one night can’t make up for all of the milk cookies throughout the year, Johnny. As Johnny gets to the bottom of the list he realizes he has one gift left to deliver:  Bunny Bravo, also known as mama. The problem is he has no gifts left – he must have delivered her gift to the wrong house. We then cut back to the mayor and his wife finding some woman’s garment and she accuses him of cavorting with some woman named Bunny. He tries to tell her he’s not, but gets another rolling pin to the noggin for his honesty. She’s rather abusive.

Johnny returns home, sad to not have a gift for his precious mama. As he sits sheepishly on the roof, he hears his mother cry out with joy from inside the house. He dives down the chimney and sees she’s sporting a new diamond ring. It says it’s from Santa, but she thinks it’s from Johnny. What a weird thing to give your mama. There’s also another gift and it’s for Johnny – a new pair of boxing gloves and mouthpiece. As Johnny admires his gift, Santa appears in the window to angrily remind him he didn’t forget how the night began, “Merry Christmas, you pinhead. Round two is next year!”

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These Hanna-Barbera folks love cameos.

“‘Twas the Night” is a pretty simple little cartoon short that goes the predictable route of casting its protagonist as Santa. Really, that feels like the number 3 Christmas cartoon cliche at this point behind parodies/adaptations of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. The narration is carried throughout the short and Adam West delivers all of his lines with great timing. He sounds sincere, even when he’s saying something funny, “And mama was sleeping, you can tell by the snoring. After four times today, Jimmy Stewart gets boring,” and It’s a Wonderful Life’s title card is depicted on the television set to complete the joke. Because of the narration, Johnny is sort of just there and he gets in a line every so often, but aside from the “Magilla” comment I didn’t find them memorable. I did like how Santa was depicted as professional and understanding of what happened. He can’t just blow-up at Johnny because he needs to focus on the task at hand, but he’s also pretty pissed and he isn’t just going to forget that Johnny Bravo broke his arm on Christmas. The animation is kind of cheap and minimalist. Johnny moves with quick actions that don’t require a lot of frames, but that’s a stylistic choice. The backgrounds though are quite static and droll. The best I can say for the show is it’s bright and colorful, and the Rudolph bit was funny.

If you like Johnny Bravo then you probably like this short well enough, even if it feels like a novelty due to the inserting of the poem. I love Adam West, so I’m inclined to at least give this one a passing grade. It may show up on Boomerang this year, but it also may not. I’d be surprised if Cartoon Network bothered to air it as they don’t do much with their legacy programs. Season one was released on DVD in 2010, and so far it’s the only season to receive a Region 1 release on DVD and it’s actually still easily obtainable so I guess they still print the things. For whatever reason, probably poor sales of season one, none of the other seasons have been released or even scheduled for release. If you like Johnny Bravo then you probably already have it at this point, and if you don’t well then I guess you stopped reading about a thousand words ago.

 


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